Thoughts of Michael: Incarcerated Youth and the Power of Creativity
Meandering Life & Creativity
When I was doing my after-degree in Education at University of Alberta, I had an opportunity to work as a research assistant for Dr. Diane Conrad. Her work involved using social justice methods, mediation and principles of drama with incarcerated Indigenous youth.
As much as I’ve joked about having bad jobs, this one was a life changer on so many levels. Leading up to this experience, I had worked with a variety of organizations providing services for youth-at-risk in mediation, recreation, literacy, and performance-based programs. Working in a prison seemed like a natural next step, where I could apply my experience in Drama and integrate past practices to assist Dr. Conrad in this important research project.
The position involved weekly visits to Edmonton Young Offender Centre (EYOC). Though the name sounds a bit like a drop-in youth centre, it was quite the opposite. Nearly all of the 12-18 year old youth in the program were unfortunately in for murder, and incarcerated in a maximum security setting.
I was intrigued to work with these kids, but at the same time, terrified. I also had so many unanswered questions.
How would they react to what I had to offer? Was I putting myself at risk? Would they try to hurt me? How could I possibly teach drama to these kids?
Before anything else, I had to get several record checks and clearances to make sure I wasn’t going to try and bust the kids out or harm them. Additionally, there were confidentiality agreements to sign since youth have special protections of privacy under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
The first visit was the hardest. I remember feeling really shaky as I walked into the entrance, cameras everywhere. My senses were heightened to the nth degree, hyperaware of everything in my surroundings.
A special clearance booth and then more metal detectors. Dr. Conrad and I walked through several hissing doors, apparently the doors were vacuum operated and had airlocks on them1.
As we approached Athabasca (the section name of the area we were headed to), I looked over and could see into other sections of the prison. Youth were taking part in a variety of programs. All of them wore the same clothing, all the same blue sweatshirts, sweatpants and blue canvas slip-on shoes. I felt like a voyeur and a bit weirded out at the same time.
We passed one locked door with a tiny square plate glass window. My eye couldn’t help but notice the bright orange coveralls. A boy was all alone in this tiny room.
I quickly asked Dr. Conrad why he was in there.
The orange jumpsuit is so he’s easily recognizable.
Pangs of sadness hit me.
We arrived to Athabasca. The big metal door released it’s pressure and slid open. Eight or nine youth were sitting in chairs in a circle with Doreen, the Corrections Officer.
I broke into a sweat, but pushed on.
I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Would they want to meet me? Would they be jerks to me and treat me badly?
How would they behave with me there?
I had a major realization in that moment. Yes, they were troubled kids. Yes, they had been through hell and back, through choices they had made or not.
But they were just kids.
Kids who needed love and attention and kindness and laughter, just like any kids you might meet. In fact, these kids needed this program more than anything.
We started with a traditional smudging ceremony, burning sweet grass. This was always powerful being able to witness and be part of this First Nations tradition. Then we checked in with one another. Some would tell stories, others would complain of something that happened, but the youth would be encouraged to show positivity and gratitude toward others. After breaking the ice, we would shift gears into another form of expression.
We used drama as a vehicle to explore issues in communication, conflict, and gang violence.
Drama was their freedom. They also connected with it. Their lives were full of drama.
The youth had school six days a week and this was their treat, to take part in drama exercises, games, and positive collaborative activities to foster change.
In some ways kids who are on the ‘outs’ (slang for ‘not in prison’) are often more guarded than those ‘inside’. The ones in prison have no where to go, no where to hide, and nothing more to lose. This doesn’t mean it was easy! I had to crack open some hard shells to get them to ease up, to play, to let go.
One of the most powerful things I feel I brought to the program was mask making and mask exploration. The goal would be for each youth to create their own character mask through a detailed process of focus and letting go, using clay sculpture, papier mâché, and paint. Then they would take a further step and explore the character on a deeper level.
The process was fascinating. I had done this many times before (with children and adults) but never with those who committed terrible crimes. I led them through a series of steps including a guided meditation of letting go, preparing them to get into the mindset of creating. It was a bit surreal having them in this state.
The next step involved using blindfolds so they could work with the clay intuitively, with their hands, and without judgement. This was especially helpful since they were so hard on themselves. Although some of the youth seemed to be robbed of their innocent spirit, the ‘inner critic’ was still alive and well. Some would judge with their hands, but most seemed to enjoy the sensual nature of working with clay without sight.
I then incorporated a few key words into the instruction, words they might connect with, a sort of ‘jumping off point’ to help shape the clay.
Magic…. and Freedom.
When I learned this process2, we’d explore very abstract words but a more literal way of working seemed to resonate with the kids. They could understand these words.
There was some discomfort at first, but they quickly trusted the process, laid hands to clay, and began. It was magical to witness.
Some laughed. Some swore. But most were silently moving their hands.
Once they got to a point where they felt they needed to see, we removed the blindfolds and they got to see what they created up to that point.
It was like unwrapping Christmas gifts.
That’s dope3, man!!
Then they were able to continue and refine their creations. Over a period of a few visits, I guided them in covering the clay with papier mâché, then painting the masks, removing the mask from the clay mold, and finally preparing the masks to wear and explore.
Once they completed the mask, we did a whole series of other explorations into character. Not surprising, the characters had an edge! I don’t remember the exact words they used, but I do remember the feelings.
It was like I had let out the demon from one boy. He talked of freedom like no other. His character talked of being free from the shackles of pain.
Another character seemed depressed and meloncholy. He dragged his feet slowly on the floor. Then laughed about it later.
One other had boundless energy, jumping around, spontaneous. Then laughter.
It was as if I had pressed a button that tapped into their creative minds, into their spirit that needed letting out. An outlet so valuable that no money nor drug could ever buy.
It was a profound and memorable experience. I’m grateful to Dr. Diane Conrad for allowing me to work with her, and for the opportunity to work with the youth at EYOC.
It reaffirmed the absolute necessity of creativity in life, the need for self expression and the healing power of the Arts.
At least this is how I remember them.
I learned this incredible process from Jan Henderson, a life changing Clown & Mask Workshop at U of A.
For those of you who think ‘dope’ is drugs, you are correct. But in this form, it means amazing or awesome.